Ladies Who Lunch: The Women of Mexican Cuisine
Since pre-conquest times, the majority of cooks in Mexico have been women. They ground the corn, patted out tortillas, and prepared the guisos, (cooked dishes.) They were the ones who incorporated the new ingredients and techniques brought by the Spaniards into local recipes. As few Spanish women came to the new world in the early years, indigenous women and sometimes African slaves were employed in the conquistador’s kitchens. Known as 'mayoras', they ruled the larders of the large haciendas and worked to develop a true mestizo cuisine. This is still true today; many of the best restaurants in the country are run by women.
Knowledge of recipes and techniques was passed down from generation to generation until our era. Not until the last decades of the 20th century did young women have options other than to be housekeepers and cooks. Even in recent years a woman’s occupation was often written on official forms as “labores propias de su sexo” or “work appropriate to her sex.”
As women’s lives changed, the store of culinary knowledge began to be lost. Information long kept private and not shared outside of the family was no longer valued by those destined to inherit it. While the best recipes may come from somebody’s grandmother, getting her to part with these carefully guarded secrets is often difficult. Often only after years of friendship, will a cook “spill the beans” so to speak. Diana Kennedy, who traveled the countryside in search of material for her books reports that getting people to divulge their secrets was her hardest job.
Today few culinary institutes in Mexico teach techniques of classical Mexican cooking. Since the 1980’s, however, many women chefs, notably, Alicia Gironella de Angeli, Patricia Quintana, Monica Patiño, Martha Ortiz Chapa and Carmen 'Titita' Degollado, have opened their own restaurants to international acclaim, with the aim of promoting both traditional and innovative Mexican cuisine. Before them came women who promoted the culture of Mexican cooking, including cookbook authors Lula Bertrán, María Orsini, María Dolores Yzabal, and researchers Janet Long and Lila Lomelí. Most of their work sought to improve restaurant standards, promote Mexican food outside the country, organize food festivals, write books, and collect regional recipes. They in turn followed earlier generations of women, among them, Josefina Velázquez de León and Adela Hernández, who at the beginning of the 20th century gathered recipes and wrote cookbooks. Even artists and arbiters of culture like Frida Kahlo, Olga Costa and Lupe Marín who celebrated all things Mexican included the culture of food in their work.
Outside Mexico, it has also been principally women who spread the word: Diana Kennedy, Josefina Howard, Zarela Martinez, Gabriela Cámara, Josefina Santicruz and Thomasina Miers are some of the most notable. Recently, collected knowledge from home and abroad has begun to be taught in a few culinary institutes in Mexico, notably at the Centro Culinario Ambrosia. While we must recognize the accomplishments of male chefs and scholars, such as Rick Bayless, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Salvador Novo and Jose Iturriaga, in no other world cuisine have women been so recognized and celebrated for their important contributions. ¡Viva las mujeres!
(This article, adapted from my book, is re-published due to popular demand)
Where women rule the roost:
Taberna del León
Altamirano 46, Plaza Loreto, Colonia Tizapan de San Ángel; view map
Open Monday-Saturday 2pm-10pm, Sunday 2pm-6pm
Located in an old paper factory remade as a shopping mall, this lovely old house with a sunroom serves Franco-mexican food under the watchful eye of chef Monica Patiño
Miguel Angel de Quevedo 687, (inside the Centro Cultural Veracruzano), Coyoacán; view map
Tel: 5659-4447 or 5659-5759
Open daily 1 p.m.- 6 p.m.
Founder Alicia Gironella d’Angeli is one of Mexico’s foremost chefs and authors (she wrote the new Larousse de la Cocina Mexicana among other books) is an original and tireless promoter of Mexican cuisine. Her mole xico is to die for. As of 2017, capable chef Ana Arroyo has taken over the kitchen.
Avenida Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Obrera Popular; view map
Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.- 6:30 p.m, Saturday, Sunday 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
-Parque Delta Mall, Av. Cuauhtémoc 462, Colonia Narvarte
-Alejandro Dumas 7, Colonia Polanco, Tel. 5281-8245
-Plaza Parque Reforma 222 Tel. 5511-9124, 5511-9117
Chef Carmen 'Titita' Degollado author of several cookbooks, is another big name in the Mexico City culinary scene. Carnitas is the specialty, although there are many other tempting dishes on the menu. Her original restaurant is the most charming, although the Polanco and Reforma locations are open at night.
Anatole France 100 (around the corner from the entrance of Hotel Las Alcobas, which is located at Presidente Masaryk 390) Polanco; view map
Open Monday-Saturday 1:30-11:30, Sunday until 5:30
Chef Martha Ortiz Chapa's (formerly of Aguila y Sol) delights the palate and the eyes.
Zarela January 24, 2009
Very nice article. Women chefs revitalized the Mexico City restaurants scene and continue to make their mark. Did you mention Carmen Ortuño? Zarela Martinez
NG replies: Yes, I certainly should include Carmen Otuño, who pioneered "nueva cocina" at her Isadora restaurant. And Gabriela Cámara of Contramar. The above commentator is Zarela Martinez of New York's Zarela, who has written many excellent cookbooks. It was at her place that New York was finally able to taste the real thing...
Michelle Benoit April 10, 2011
Thank you for acknowledging women's contributions in Mexican cooking. This was very informative. Love El Tajin in Coyoacan. It has such a fresh atmosphere and looks out on a green lawn. They offer a great pastel de elote and possibly the best Chiles en Nogada in September. I also like their pescado a la veracruzana. A good friend just recommended El Bajio. It's on my list of must-tries. I trust anything you recommend Nicholas.
Doug February 4, 2013
HI Nick - In 1997 I participated in a four-week program of international cuisine at the Escuela Ambrosia del Bosque in San Angel. Chef Alicia Gironella d’Angeli conducted the Mexican portion of the program. I knew at the time she was a stellar instructor, I just didn't know how esteemed she is. I hope to see you again soon.
Kirsten West February 4, 2013
Very nice article Nick. In my cooking classes I always make it a point to mention the "mayoras". Please also mention Margarita Carillo de Salinas, who for a very long time has been part of the "old" guard with Alicia Gironella d'Angeli. She is now back in Mexico City (Coyoacan) with Turtux restaurant and a wonderful new book about tamales, "Tamales y atoles mexicanos'. Last weeks Menu section of El Universal featured a double page with her tamal recipes.
Zarela Martinez February 4, 2013
Since closing my restaurant last year mainly due to my health and exploding rents in the area, I have been busier than ever. First of all I had to finish organizing and cataloging my papers and he archive is about to be auctioned. Secondly, I've been working on a book and my website www.zarela.com where I have introduced a new section on naturally light Mexican food and the stats are reflecting its impact on my traffic. I am happy to say that I am much better.
Donigan Merritt February 4, 2013 at 7:26 PM
More places to eat. Thanks, Nick, as always.
La Mesa Maya February 8, 2013
Thanks for the great post! I read a great article recently (wish I could recall the name of the book) that suggested that the abundance of regional techniques and flavors in what was historically "high" Mexican cuisine was because of ongoing recruitment of indigenous, female cooks who were familiar local recipes- as opposed to Europe, where "high" cuisine was often conceived by male chefs de cuisine, and carried out by a professional servant class.
A note to my readers: See my article on Street food in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2013/feb/08/best-places-eat-street-food-mexico-city